Ken Bruce: 'It was time to challenge myself rather than wait for the axe'
Speaking to Simon O'Hagan in Radio Times magazine, Ken Bruce discusses his time at Radio 2, his decision to leave and the continuing success of Popmaster.
This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.
Ken Bruce says he doesn’t listen to records. For Bruce, for more than 30 years until early last month the presenter of the biggest show on Radio 2, the prince of Popmaster, the maestro of music broadcasting and, without doubt, the most beloved DJ in the country, radio is all that matters. "I listen to a lot of radio," he explains.
"I like to get my music from radio because – and this is why radio is so great – I don’t know what’s coming next. And you hear something and go, 'Oh I love that!'"
Radio 2 certainly didn’t know what was coming next when, back in January, Bruce dropped the bombshell that shocked his millions of listeners and became the biggest talking point in the industry. He was quitting the show. It was time to move on. The station would be losing perhaps its most emblematic figure – Bruce’s warm, mischievous Glaswegian brogue no longer to be heard between 9:30am and 12 noon every weekday morning. The dial was shifting, and so were broadcasting’s tectonic plates.
At 72, Bruce is at an age when many people would be thinking about retirement. But no. He has started all over again at Greatest Hits – the station that two years ago snaffled another Radio 2 titan, Simon Mayo. So it’s more good news for Greatest Hits, and more bad news for Radio 2. And, as he goes on to tell me, Bruce leaves with a feeling that the BBC hasn’t treated him as well as it could have.
The way he talks about the move, it sounds almost inevitable. "One of the reasons I went is because, having done the show for quite a long time, and with it being the highest-rated programme in Europe for four years, I thought, 'What’s to achieve? What’s left? What mountains are left to climb in this particular place?' And I thought, 'Not really very much.' I didn’t want to go into a slow decline, and have people all looking around and saying, 'When is he going to leave?' I wanted to go rather than hear that."
But that’s not the whole story. There were frustrations, too. "I probably wanted to prove a few things to myself, and maybe to some other people, about my worth on Radio 2. There were times when I felt I wasn’t really noticed by either the BBC itself or some listeners. So I thought, ‘I’m going to make these people appreciate me.’ And having done that to my satisfaction, I felt it was time to give myself a little challenge, try something different, rather than become stale and wait for the axe."
What made him feel he wasn’t being appreciated? "Well, this is going back a few years, but there were times when all the publicity was about other presenters, people who were off the telly, and I wasn’t mentioned at all. I was just an afterthought. And I thought, ‘Well, I just want to make these people realise that I’m doing quite a good job.’ There was a certain amount of, ‘Oi, I’m over here!’"
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I suggest to Bruce that he’s been taken for granted. "You’re absolutely right. But I guess that applies to anybody who’s done a good job for a long time in any kind of situation."
He is also not best pleased that Radio 2 asked him to step down from the show before his contract had fully expired. His last show was at the beginning of March. "I’m a little bit disappointed by that, I have to say. Because I thought that, after 45 years, I could be trusted to do the right thing for the next few weeks. But obviously it’s up to them. It’s their choice."
At Greatest Hits, where his five weekday morning shows will pretty much replicate what he’s been doing at Radio 2, he’s playing more of the music he really loves – the classics from yesteryear – and less of the new music that his old station incorporates into its playlists.
"I was brought up with radio in the '70s, '80s and '90s. And when you’ve got such a fantastic depth of music to be able to play from those decades, it’s lovely to be able to do just that. There’s no end to the quality tracks that you can play. Yes, there’s a place for new music, but to concentrate on those decades, and the quality of those decades, it’s a lovely offering and a lovely product. I’m delighted to be a part of it."
There’s nothing wrong with new music, Bruce stresses. "I mean, there’s some very high-quality new music. I might take issue with the balance, the proportion of new music against old music. It’s about listening to your audience and hearing what your audience wants. This is one of the rules I learnt years and years ago when I started in hospital radio. You don’t come in and play the music that you like, you play the music that your audience likes."
One thing Bruce’s audience really likes is his daily music quiz, Popmaster. He was smart enough to trademark it 25 years ago, and he’s taken it to Greatest Hits. What’s its secret? "It’s successful because of the quality of the questions, the simplicity of the format and the great desire of the British people to share an experience at the same time every day."
On Greatest Hits, that time will be 10:30am, and Bruce is clearly hoping that lots of his old Radio 2 listeners will be there to enjoy it. "Radio listenership is a very ingrained thing," Bruce says. "People listen to the same station for a long time, and it’s not easy for them to re-learn how to listen to another station. But I’m hoping that sufficient people will, and if you’ve enjoyed what I’ve been doing on Radio 2, then come and join me somewhere else."